Mr. Speaker, as always, it is a great honour to rise in the House representing the people of Timmins—James Bay and to speak to Bill C-52, an act to amend the Canada Transportation Act and the Railway Safety Act.
Trains play a huge role in the life and the history of our country. For any boy growing up, the thing we all wanted to be was a train. I spent my life on the Ontario Northland as a kid. My great grandfather used to be the conductor on the Sydney Flyer in Nova Scotia. He lived in Iona. a little village in Cape Breton. He used to say that the only two things that we could find in the village of Iona were holy days and MacNeills. My great grandfather was a MacNeill, so John P. MacNeill was the conductor on the Sydney Flyer. John P's great skill was that he could spot bootleggers on the platform. His eye for a bootlegger was never wrong. He always said that a man carrying a bottle of whiskey with his underwear in a bag would put that bag down with just a little more care than if there were no whiskey in the bottle.
My uncles all worked on the Ontario Northland train out of North Bay and Mattawa. In those days people either worked in northern Ontario, underground in the mines, as my grandfather MacNeill and my grandfather Angus did, or on the Northlander, like my uncles did.
I had a famous uncle who apparently used to drink a twenty-sixer every night on the run from North Bay to Timmins. They said that he was never the worst for wear, although some nights after a twenty-sixer, he would say that it was like the same as working 21 straight hours and being very tired. He did not live long enough for me to be around, but he used to tell us stories about being on those trains.
My street address is Mileage 104, which is 104 miles on the Ontario Northland railway track. Every morning there is that beautiful sound of the train whistle, going past my house, shaking everything in the foundation. It used to carry people but not anymore. The provincial Liberal government of Kathleen Wynne decided that people in northern Ontario were truly second-class citizens and did not merit public transit.
Public transit is something that belongs in urban areas and to urban voters, but people in northern Ontario are somehow second class. Therefore, the Liberal government set out to destroy a 100-year-old public institution, which is the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission.
What passes by my house daily now is the wood going south, the way the wood has always gone south, and tanker cars full of sulphuric acid from the smelter in Rouyn-Noranda, Quebec. The trains used to carry product from the smelter in Timmins, but the Liberals also allowed that to be killed because of their idiotic hydro pricing. We are used to seeing things being shipped out of our region on the train, but we used to be able to ship our people back and forth
Just this past weekend I had the great honour and great joy of travelling on the VIA train between Toronto and Ottawa. It was just like being a little kid again, getting on the train, the smell of the train, the feel of the train and the conductors. I felt the same excitement, but I felt a real sense of sadness. For so many regions of our country, the idea of a coherent national transit strategy, including trains, is being seen as somehow something that belongs in the 19th century as opposed to a very 21st century method of travel. I hope to us restore proper train transportation into our regions in the near future, when a New Democratic government is elected in Ontario and we get rid of that corrupt Liberal government.
The Ontario Liberals could learn that their right-wing austerity premier will be a footnote in history like Alison Redford, having promised to be a progressive premiere and then turning her back on the people. From our colleagues in Alberta, we can see how we can elect a progressive woman and actually get it.
I want to speak today about the importance of the safety transportation changes that are coming, changes that need to happen. We have seen an enormous shift in the movement of goods. Over the last five years, there has been a 28,000% increase in the transportation of fuels from western Canada, particularly on the rail lines. Trains are carrying fuel from the Bakken fields, which we know is highly combustible. They are also carrying diluted bitumen and heavy crude.
The incredible increase of this transportation on the transit system has raised serious questions about issues of safety, particularly when we saw the tragedy at Lac-Mégantic.
However, warnings about a potential rail tragedy have been discussed in Parliament for many years. I remember being here in 2004 and trying to get the Liberal government of Paul Martin to see some common sense, which it refused to see. The Liberal government believed that privatizing, allowing companies to look after themselves, getting rid of inspectors and saving money for the government would somehow make things better. Therefore, the Liberal government brought in changes to the Railway Safety Act. The Liberals went to the self-management system and told us that was the future.
It was just like the Liberals told us at that that they could do the same thing for the banking rules. The push at that time was to change Canada's banking laws to allow the banks to self-regulate. We were told in the House of Commons that the NDP was somehow the nanny state NDP because we said that we needed rules around banking. However, at the time, my Liberal colleagues thought that the great future was in City Bank and the amalgamation and investment that was happening in the United States. We saw how that ended up.
In good times, it is easy to say that we do not need regulation. In good times it is easy to say that we should let everything happen and things will carry on. We know our role as regulators is to ensure we have basic rules in place to protect people from potential accidents.
After the changes that came in under the Liberals in self-management, we found there was a whole series of increases in accidents, but because the companies were self-managed, they did not bother to report them. The Transportation Safety Board in 2005 became suspicious of CN's accident numbers compared to other operators. All of a sudden there was a large discrepancy of the number of derailments or lack of derailments. It turned out that over 1,800 derailments and accidents were simply not reported, including 44 that happened on key rail arteries. We have oversight because we want to ensure that when companies are self-regulating, they do not do what they did at that time, which was simply not bothering to report. This is a very serious issue, particularly in light of the accidents we have seen recently.
In my region of northern Ontario, we have had three serious train derailments on the rural subdivision at Hornepayne and two at Gogama. The last two incidents were February 14 and March 7, with CN freight trains carrying between 94 and 100 cars. The March 7 train was 6,089 feet long. A staggering amount of crude oil was being carried on that track.
They had come on the rural subdivision that exists between Capreol, in the south toward Sudbury and Hornepayne. It is primarily composed of a continuous welded rail and is classified as class 4 track under the transportation safety rules. Class 4 is the second-highest rating and allows trains to travel 60 miles an hour for freight and 80 miles an hour for passenger trains. However, we do not see many passenger trains anymore in the north. There were a number of slow orders given because of problems along that track. We had the accident on February 14 at Gogama and then again on March 7. At the time of the March 7 derailment, the eastbound freight was moving at 43 miles an hour and at 2:40 in the morning, at a temperature of -10C, the train jumped the tracks and cars spilled into the Mattagami River.
What was very disturbing about the 700 feet of track that was destroyed at that junction and the cars going in was that a great deal of work had happened in our region in terms of the Mattagami River, which is one of the great northern river systems feeding into James Bay. A lot of work has been done to secure fisheries and build up spawning grounds. Having heavy crude pouring into and burning across that river system was certainly deeply disturbing for residents of my region. They see that as one of the great river systems of northern Ontario.
The issue of transportation safety, given the huge increase in combustible fuels that are being transported on trains, is very serious because many communities were built on the rail line. Therefore, trains actually travel through the centre of many communities across western Canada and northern Ontario. In Sudbury, cars sit at lights as trains speed by. If the Gogama derailment had happened in an urban area, it could have been a tragedy in the nature of Lac-Mégantic.
What do we do to alleviate this? Whenever we talk about the transportation of dangerous goods, whether it is through a pipeline or by rail, we have to ensure there are rules in place for oversight and public safety. There are some very positive elements in this bill, which the New Democrats will be supporting, such as putting in place minimum insurance levels for railways transporting dangerous goods based on the type and volume of goods being transported and also establishing a disaster relief fund to deal with accidents such as occurred in Lac-Mégantic.
There have also been a number of changes, including increased powers for inspectors. This is important to have. Is this enough? Given the potential damage that could be caused by a catastrophic train derailment, perhaps not. We need to speak to this. The issue of polluter pays is a fundamental principle that Canadians agree with and in improving rail liability and accountability, we do not want the public on the hook for any potentially catastrophic disaster. Therefore, the question is how to establish a regime that is still profitable and able to transport goods by rail. We want to ensure that rail remains a profitable system, while also assuring the public that in cases of liability, there will not be fly-by-nighters, like happened at Lac-Mégantic, saying that they do not have any money and wanting to skip town. That is not good enough, not when lives and the environment are at stake.
Essentially, Bill C-52 would require minimum insurance levels for railways transporting dangerous goods and would establish a disaster relief fund paid for by crude shippers. However, regarding the issue of minimum insurance levels from $25 million for companies transporting low-risk goods up to a maximum of $1 billion for railways transporting high-risk goods, the question is at what point we would get to a level within the fund where money would available to offset a potential disaster.
I would like to compare what happened in Gogama with the situation in Kalamazoo. In the Kalamazoo blowout, it was a pipeline and not a rail disaster, but that pipeline was carrying raw bitumen. When the bitumen hit the water, cleaning it up was not so simple. In fact, it has cost over $1 billion to attempt to remediate the bitumen in the Kalamazoo River. Bitumen is a very difficult and dangerous product to deal with, especially when it sinks to the bottom. The chemicals that are involved make it a very different issue.
Whether we are talking about pipelines or rail, we get back to one of the root issues, which is that we need to move toward upgrading at source as much as possible to limit the potential for environmental damage. Also, we need to ensure that we see the benefit of whatever we produce in Canada, in terms of natural raw materials, as much as possible. We need to have discussions in the House of Commons about how to limit the environmental damage from such massive projects, because we are in a world that deals with the potential for catastrophic climate change and the government has literally buried its head in the oil sands, refusing to deal with its international obligations.
However, as Canadians, we need to deal with this. Canadians feels very inspired to take action on this. We have seen, with the recent New Democratic Party win in Alberta, that Albertans are deeply concerned about how we make developments that are sustainable, how to limit the impact of greenhouse gases, how to ensure that if we transport our incredible natural resources, which we are blessed with right across the country, we get the maximum benefits, so that Canada is not just a place where the ground is ripped out and products are shipped to refineries in Texas or to China, but we see the benefit from that.
These are all interrelated issues that really need to be discussed in Parliament. We need to have a national conversation about where we are going with this.
The bill, in response to the situation in Lac-Mégantic, is a good first step. As I said, we in the New Democratic Party have many questions about whether this insurance is enough. We certainly question some of the numbers.
For the 200,000 barrels of oil transported daily, Transport Canada estimates that oil levies would contribute about $17 million annually to general revenues. This is a step forward, but there are certainly outstanding concerns. We would need to have the levy in place for about 15 years before we reached the $250-million level where it believes we would be able to respond to any level of crisis. I would again point to Lac-Mégantic. It cost $400 million for the damage done in that one accident. Therefore, this levy would certainly not be enough.
Under the legislated summary we received from the Library of Parliament, the act would amend the Railway Act to allow a province or municipality that incurs costs in responding to a fire that was, in its opinion, the result of a rail company's railway operations to apply to the Canada Transportation Agency to have those costs reimbursed by the rail company. That is an important role, but we also need to work closely with municipalities. They are very concerned about the kinds of dangerous goods being transported through their communities and the need for plans to make sure that if something did blow out, such as in Toronto, where the rail line comes right through parts of the city, we would all be working together on this.
The Canadian Federation of Municipalities certainly supports what the New Democrats have been saying. It is interested in the issues of insurance and liability. Brad Woodside, who is president, called for a “comprehensive approach that makes railways and crude oil shippers pay the full costs of rail disasters, and not leave municipalities and taxpayers footing the bill”.
That is a fundamental principle. It should not be the taxpayers of the country who are subsidizing these operations. These operations need to be profitable in their own right, and they need to carry the cost of the potential damage through proper insurance.
The Railway Association of Canada believes that the compensation fund should cover the cost of not only crude oil but other dangerous goods, such as chlorine, which is a very interesting element. In my region, they are carrying tanker cars full of sulphuric acid on the rail lines. I remember a number of years ago when the ONR line went over just south of Temagami and pretty much destroyed a lake because of the amount of sulphuric acid that entered the water. These rail lines are carrying very dangerous goods at times, and we need to have that overall policy.
The Canadian Transportation Agency has said:
The tragic derailment in Lac-Mégantic has raised important questions regarding the adequacy of third party liability insurance coverage to deal with catastrophic events, especially for smaller railways.
This is another important issue in terms of what we saw at Lac-Mégantic, where we had a small, fly-by-night company that, when the damage was done, simply was not going to be around the next day to deal with it.
In closing, this improvement in rail safety and the creation of a fund is important, but we still need to have that conversation about how to ensure that the industry is covering off its own costs so that municipalities, provinces, and the federal government are not on the hook. We need to make sure that the federal government maintains an active role. After those years when the Liberal government allowed self-regulation and we saw numerous increases in accidents and a decline in safety, we need to make sure that there are independent inspectors and that the companies are accountable.
Finally, we need to continue the national conversation about how we are going to process oil, bitumen, and other natural resources in our country.